As Natural Gas Fracking Expands, Water Worries Mount Pennsylvania is at the center of a natural gas boom. But getting to the fuel requires a process called hydraulic fracturing that pumps water and chemicals far underground. One scientist is trying to find whether that's causing the high methane levels found in water near some gas wells.

Worries Over Water As Natural Gas Fracking Expands

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NPR's Christopher Joyce recently traveled to Pennsylvania with a scientist who's leading the search for an answer.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: When you frack, as hydraulic fracturing is called, you pump fluids underground. That cracks the shale a mile deep and drives natural gas up to the surface - gas that otherwise could never be tapped. But some people fracking also ruins their water.

MIKE BASTION: What gives the gas industry the right to take your clean water away?

JOYCE: Anxiety about fracking runs high here. Bastion's brother Steve says some of his neighbors can't drink their well water anymore. Today, Steve has invited a team of scientists from Duke University into his home to test the water from his kitchen sink.

STEVE BASTION: You take for granted doing this, all right? Do this when it doesn't work, or you can't drink it - everything changes. That's a good sound right there.

JOYCE: Has this pitted neighbor against...

BASTION: Oh, you betcha. The haves and the haves-not. You know what I'm saying? The have-nots should count because we got to drink water too.

JOYCE: The thing about these tainted water stories is they're hard to prove. So Duke University's Rob Jackson, a chemical engineer and ecologist, is trying to figure out if they're true.

ROB JACKSON: Homeowners will come to tears when you talk to them. There's fear about water; there's something visceral about water.

JOYCE: Jackson has tested about 125 water wells in Pennsylvania and New York. He is looking for potentially dangerous drilling fluids or radioactive material from deep underground. He hasn't found any of that.

JACKSON: What we found was that people living near a natural gas well had a much greater chance of having high methane concentrations in their water.

JOYCE: That's why he's visiting Carl Young's house to test his water. There's no fracking yet near Young's water well.


JACKSON: We'll run the water for five or 10 minutes just to flush it out. The bucket is for sampling methane, and then we'll grab samples for lots of chemical analyses - salt concentration...

JOYCE: Jackson is broad-shouldered and wears a camouflage ball cap. He and Young, a retired truck inspector, swap deer-hunting stories. Young says the gas boom has been good here for the local economy, but not easy for everyone.

CARL YOUNG: This is a small rural community with very few people, and now you've got a lot of people. So you need everything - you know, motels, food - you need all of that. You know, there has to be change.

JOYCE: Young says there's a dairy farmer nearby who wants a water test as well. We drive past drilling pads and big trucks that haul fracking water and equipment down narrow country roads.


JOYCE: Inside the farmer's barn, a couple dozen cows stand listlessly in stalls.


JOYCE: Duke researcher Stephen Osborne draws water from a sink to test. He says dairy farmers have been especially worried about their water.

STEPHEN OSBORNE: If there's any contamination from something, it makes it difficult, almost impossible, in fact, to sell their milk, so their business is done, essentially, if that occurs.

JOYCE: Then down the road a bit we visit Steve Miller. His house sits less than 500 yards from an active drilling pad. He wants a water test too. He says the big drilling trucks have ruined the roads, but he says the companies do fix them. There are more strangers in town too nowadays. But he says in balance the gas business has helped the local economy.

STEVE MILLER: The people who own the land are going to be able to keep the farm, pay their taxes. And farmers are selling their cows and are going to have an easier life because of the wells.

JOYCE: One way to get a fix on what's natural and what's caused by fracking is to look at an old methane seep.


JOYCE: We find one at Salt Springs State Park, near the New York-Pennsylvania border. At the center of a shallow pond, there's a hole in the rock. Methane bubbles up, as if there's a giant champagne bottle under there. It's been doing that as long as anyone remembers.

JACKSON: One of the questions is, is that methane the same as the methane that we're finding in people's drinking water?

JOYCE: So if water wells are contaminated with deep methane from a mile down, how is it getting there? It might be seeping up through underground cracks opened up by fracking. Or, says Jackson, it could be the cement casing around gas wells that sometimes leaks. That's happened before.

JACKSON: Think of a garden hose with a pinhole leak. That water spurts out, and if you don't fix that leak, over time it gets bigger.

JOYCE: Jackson says there actually are data about water wells and methane taken before fracking. The gas industry has them. The state has some of that data too. Jackson says they aren't sharing that data with him. He says he understands why the industry might be defensive.

JACKSON: My first job out of college, I was an engineer - I worked for the Dow Chemical Company - so I understand what it's like to be accused of things that a company didn't do.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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